Today is the other day that I knew would eventually come, but I didn’t expect to feel quite the way I do as I sit in my window seat and look at the Swiss countryside fading beneath me.

This is the end of the first of three trips I will make to Europe over the next year.  But this is the only one that I have done largely on my own, without my husband or a particular traveling partner beside me.  I have chosen where to go when and with whom.  I have figured out train schedules and fares, restaurant menus and tips, and places to sleep and visit.  I have made friends with Germans and French people, Spaniards and Swiss.  And I leave this Continent with more of a sense of self than I had when I first stepped foot here back in that warm April day in Barcelona.

I learned, for starters, about the sorts of things that irritate me, both about myself and about others.  Traveling brings out people’s rough edges, those things we can safely set to the side when we’re at home.  I learned that my edges revolve around my fears and loneliness.  If I feel lonely or isolated, I tend to get more quickly annoyed with others than I ordinarily would.  And if I feel afraid or threatened in any way, I have a hard time admitting it to others or dealing with the war that wages in my head over shoulds and shouldn’ts.

I went for a long walk last night by myself through the vineyards and paths of Rivaz and the surrounding Swiss villages.  I was indeed alone, but I felt like I was on a walk with the Creator of it all.  I took my time strolling around, watching the incredible sunset over the Alps reflecting its colors on the surface of the water.  I could feel my tired body getting more tired by the minute, but I pushed myself further and further.  If there’s anything that I have learned about myself, it’s that I can indeed be pushed to limits that I never would have approached before– I can survive narrowly being pick-pocketed, I can figure out how to get from one place to another (even in a language I don’t speak!), I can power hike up a mountain to enjoy a quick but life-giving view, I can not let a rainy day ruin my enjoyment of beauty.

After this flight lands in Newark, I’ll be greeted by my husband who has been busy packing the belongings we’ve accumulated over the past three years of marriage.  In three days, we will both graduate as Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.  And in a week, we’ll be turning over the keys to our apartment– the only home we’ve known together– as we embark on the next adventures laid out before us.  Peter will be traveling to Israel and Palestine.  He’ll then travel to Germany, where, in one month, I will meet him for another month of travel.  I am eager to return to the U.S., where my husband and family call home, but I know that I leave a piece of my heart behind in Europe.  I hope that I can find it when I return.

Until then…

Adventure seeker on an empty street

Just an alley creeper, light on his feet

A young fighter screaming, with no time for doubt

With the pain and anger can’t see a way out

It ain’t much I’m asking, I heard him say

Gotta find me a future move out of my way

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now…

Taizé: Take Two

06.05.09

My partner in silence-keeping is a quiet German girl named Julia (pronounced Yoolia).  She is sweet, but she does not think she speaks English well so she does not speak much at all.  I can’t help but feel embarrassed that I am so uni-lingual.  I know Spanish pretty well, I can vaguely remember some Italian from college, but, for the most part, I’m useless over here.  I have fallen head-over-heels in love with French, but, contrary to my expectation, English and German are the languages I am hearing most here in Taizé.

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But Julia and I communicate very well when she opens up– it just takes a little bit of patience.  Patience, I’ve got.  I have to have it while traveling and being here or else I’d go insane.  But, I am still struggling.  This place is exactly what I was told it would be, but it is still nothing like I imagined… sort of like marriage.  I want to BE here, I want to make friends and have good conversation with people from around the world.  BUT!  I also just want to hit the road and get back out there on my own, having the grand adventure I was having just a week ago.  I want to be sleeping well and eating good food.  I want my wine to come in a glass cup with a stem.  I want more coffee and less bread.  And I want some Claritin.  I want, I want, I want…

But, I have what I need, I suppose.  I have a lunch sitting in my stomach (albeit not one I care to write about), I have a bed to lie on, water to drink, people to talk to, a place to pray, clothes to wear.  It is so difficult to be satisfied with these things.  It is difficult to do my work here– sitting in a cold, damp, bee-infested field, telling teenagers to keep their shirts on their backs, their hands to themselves, and their voices down.  It is difficult not to be frustrated when I can’t understand other people.  It is difficult to settle myself long enough to pray, to think, to reflect.

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So, here I am at Taizé.  I thought it would be a life-altering experience, and, I suppose it still has that potential, but it is all so other.  It is not idyllic.  It is a real place with real people, and that always poses real problems.  And real joys.

Some realities:

– I am getting to know so many people– Polish, Russian, German, Lithuanian, French, Argentinian, Swiss, Italian, Dutch, etc.  Americans here are rare, but not totally non-existent.

– Today, Elizabeth (the red-headed German) said that she thought I was like “sunshine.”  I cannot say how good that made me feel, how kind that was to hear.

– In many ways, I think I am still learning how to love myself.  I think this is ok.

– I can’t help but wonder what people do here if they do not believe in God and if they do not pray or meditate?  What brings them here?  What brings any of us here?

One word: Overwhelming.

So many thoughts, I don’t know where to begin.  Right now, I am tired, sore, sick to my stomach, sick to my heart, and unsure about so much.

This is not like traveling.  This is like camp.

Now, I like camp, but this…?  This is like camp, on Mars.  Beautiful, yes, but so strange, so foreign, so other.  Suddenly, I am being expected to think about my soul, and whenever that expectation is upon me, it’s the last thing I want to do.

I don’t know what to think of Taizé.  I can’t say that I don’t like it, but as of now, I can’t say that I do.  Yesterday, I had absolutely no time to journal.  Today, I have not had time even to brush my teeth.  It’s hardly the quiet and soul-quenching space that I was hoping.  At least, not yet.

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Right now, I am standing in the meditation garden, the Source.  My job is to be the silence-keeper over this space.  I do not really like it; I am not very good at it.  Teenagers keep coming down here to talk and laugh and get away from their adult supervisors.  And I have to tiptoe over to them and request that they be quiet.  So far, I have walked away twice with the strong suspicion that the teens are immediately launching into some jokes at my expense (and in a language I cannot understand!).  I’m fine with being made fun of by teenagers; I just wish I knew how to communicate more effectively with them!

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Still, it is a beautiful place.  I have watched French ducks eat lunch for two consecutive mornings.  What could be more simple and transcendental than that?

But, it is damp and cold here, and I am increasingly feeling like I might be allergic to this region of France.  But, I am trying to hold it together.  Lord knows, I am trying.

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Some initial observations about Taizé:

-Things are not nearly as self-explanatory as I thought they would be.

-Songs are difficult to pick up right away and are not repeated nearly as much as I thought.

-The silence during our prayer times is not as long or as silent as I thought it would be (people shifting and coughing and sneezing tends to make a lot of noise).

-Without a worship leader, I find it difficult to know what to do or where to look.

-I am much more self-conscious than I hoped I would be.

-Most of the time, I am utterly exhausted.  And hungry.  So, spiritual pilgrimmage?  To be determined.

I had to catch a bus from Avignon to Orange and then from Orange to Vaison la Romaine.  The first bus ride was relatively uneventful.  I asked two ladies in front of me at the station which bus was the right one for me to board, and they took it upon themselves to make sure that I was safe and settled and knew where I was going.  Never underestimate the potential kindness in a stranger.

In Orange, the bus driver spoke no English, and so I stood at the front of the bus trying again and again to pronounce Vaison la Romaine correctly—or at least correctly enough so that he could understand me.  Instead, he kept giving me an irritated, “Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-mahn?”

“Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-main?

“Eh?”

“Vay-zohn la Ro-mahn?

“Eh?”

Vay-zahn la Ro-main?”

“Eh?”

Finally, I dug through my daypack until I found my guidebook pages with the name of the town printed on them.  “Ici,” I said.  “Here.”

I decided that I think the reason I find buses so intimidating is that you generally have to deal with a person up front, and, if you look foolish, you then have to ride in this small space with the witnesses to your humiliation for the duration of your journey.  It’s a little much, to be honest.  I sat on the second row, tried not to look behind me, and examined every road and stop to try to decode the schedule.  Fortunately, miraculously, I got off at the right stop, walked down the main road of the town, and found my hotel with no problem.

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The hotel was great—funky, urban-feeling, but small and intimate.  Hôtel Burrhus, it is called, and it seemed oddly out-of-place in this slow and ancient Provençal town.  After checking in, I asked the hotelier where I could get a good meal, and she recommended a restaurant two doors down from the hotel.  Though the service was great, the food was mediocre, a first for me in France.  But my waiter was extremely kind, and when he saw me wrapping my scarf around my neck, he said, “Oh, please, madam.  Come inside.  Warm up with your coffee.”  Then he brought me a small dessert—“from me to you, a gift”—and tried to impress me with his electronic waiter’s pad that allowed him to print my bill from a distance.  I played along.  Why not?  I love these people…

When I woke up this morning, I walked for about an hour trying to find the bus station and get information about my bus out of town.  I resorted to stopping people on the street and asking for directions, and, while everyone tried their best to tell me (complete with “et voila!” every time), I had a hard time finding it because it was in a strangely modern building.  Considering the surroundings—a gas station, a market, ancient Roman ruins—I just couldn’t recognize it for what it was.  When I finally got the information I needed, it turned out that I only had two hours to explore the town before my bus arrived.  I considered just sitting around and waiting, but I knew that this town had some incredible hikes surrounding it, so I set off—a coffee in one hand and a croissant in the other.

I crossed the ancient Roman bridge and set to walking toward the chateau at the top of the hill, where, I was told, I could see for kilometers and kilometers.

And indeed, this was my reward:
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I think I am in love.  With Provence.

As I was crossing the bridge from the train station into Arles, I knew that the view was familiar, but I could not remember exactly how.  Then it dawned on me.  THIS is exactly where Van Gogh sat and painted his “Starry Night on the Rhône.”  The clouds were hovering in the air from the recently passed storm, but the light was gathering underneath like they had been waiting to give a newcomer a show.  I set my backpack down and watched.

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At the Hotel Regence, I was greeted by a small, kind man who convinced me to have the “simple, Provençal breakfast” the hotel offers in the morning.  He gave me directions to my room, which, though small by American standards, feels like my own chateau after three straight nights in hostels.  It has a TV!  And a double bed!  And a sink and a toilet and a shower!  It’s my most expensive night on the trip, but I couldn’t be more satisfied with this place.

After getting settled, I went out to explore and quickly felt like I was being haunted by the soul of Van Gogh… and figured I might be going crazy, too.  Arles is so confusing.  All the roads are windy and small, and every map I had only made it that much more frustrating that I could not find my way around.  My stomach was starting to feel like a caged animal trying to escape, and as it grew darker, I began to worry about all the perils of being a woman traveling solo: theft, strange men, getting lost forever, starving to death… (Ok, so these may not be your typical woman-traveling-solo fears; Arles makes you go a little nuts).

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Fortunately, I could locate the huge sights—the Roman amphitheater, the forum, etc.  But every time I started down a road I was sure would lead me to my designation—a row of restaurants recommended in my trusty guidebook—I ended up lost and retracing my steps.  I really started to worry when all the whistling started.  My friendly hotelier had assured me that Arles was very safe, and I think it probably really is, but when you are hungry and bewildered by a new place—and all alone—the last thing you want is a bunch of overly-romanced French dudes hitting on you.  First, a man wanted the time.  I showed him my watch (not on Euro-24-hour time) and bid him adieu, but he followed me for a while anyway.  I rolled my eyes and started walking alongside an Asian tourist couple, giving them my very best non-verbal ‘this-dude-won’t-leave-me-alone’ look.  They graciously let me accompany them for a few blocks before he went his own way.  Then I went mine.  Next, I was treated to a chorus of whistles from a passing group of younger men.  I kept walking and shook my head.  As I turned the corner, I had to walk past another group of men, sitting on the steps of a building, and another chorus of whistles erupted.  Finally, I made it back to the Rhône, opened my map once again in a last ditch attempt to find some food, and looked up just in time to see a man standing in his second floor window, staring at me with a big, creepy smile.  And who knows why this was my breaking point, but I suddenly had a resurgence of determination.  “Hell no,” I said to him (in English, mind you).  “I’m not dealing with this anymore until I EAT.”

So, I started down a street.  And, miracles of miracles, it turned out to be exactly the street I was looking for.  I checked out the menus at a few places before making my selection, deciding that Au Bryn du Thym would serve me just fine.  I found a seat and settled in for one of the most interesting nights of my travel so far.  My food was delicious—white wine, smoked salmon atop a pile of steamed and lightly seasoned brown rice, asparagus, and a generous portion of mousse au chocolat.  Being filled with a good meal, I was finally willing to open myself up to the possibility of conversation with some of these strange and overzealous French men.  Just for fun.

My first interaction occurred with the Spanish-guitar-playing minstrel, playing and singing (LOUDLY!) for each table.  When he got to my table, I decided that perhaps speaking to him would prevent him from hammering me for tips and scream-singing into my ear.  So, I asked, “¿Habla usted español?”  Yes, he said, and sat down at my table.  He told me he was from Catalunya and was pleased that I had started my trip in Barcelona.  When I told him I was from the U.S., he told me that it is his dream to go and live in New York City, but that so far, he had only spent time in Nebraska.  He insisted on singing a few songs for me (“La Triste Bella” and “Hecho el Café”), but thankfully, he did not ask me for any money.  When he asked what I did in the U.S., I couldn’t think of how to tell him that I am a seminary student, studying to be a pastor.  So, I just said, in simple Spanish, “Estudio Dios.”  He seemed alarmed!  He asked several other people how to ask me a question in English.  Finally he got the information he was looking for.  “Are you a nun?” he asked.  I laughed, and then considered having to ward off this French-Catalonian admirer for the rest of the evening.  “Yes,” I said.  “Yes, I am.”  Abruptly, he left for a smoke break.  I laughed to myself during the rest of my meal.

By the time my dessert came, it had grown very dark and my concerns now turned to finding my way back to my hotel.  So, I asked my very pleasant waiter if he knew the guitar-playing man.  “No,” he said, “I don’t know him.”  Hm, ok.  A little more to the point, I asked, “Is it safe for me to walk alone in Arles at night?”  “Oui!” he said.  “It’s no problem here.”  I thanked him, ate my mousse, and considered getting a taxi, just to avoid the worry.

A few minutes later, the waiter was back at my table.  “Are you really a nun?” he asked.  I smiled and told the truth.  “No, I am a student.”  He smiled and looked relieved.  I quickly added, “But I am married.”  This time, he laughed.  “Ok,” he said.  “I know if my wife was traveling somewhere and did not feel safe, I would want a good man to walk her back to her hotel.  As you like.”

I hesitated.  On the one hand, I AM married, and I was conflicted about whether or not accepting this offer would somehow dishonor that fact.  On the other hand, I was a little nervous about walking around in this crazy town in the dark.  On the other hand, I had confidence that I would eventually figure it out on my own.  On the other hand, did I want to pass up an opportunity for a native Arles-ite to show me around his town?

As these thoughts were going through my mind, the kind woman who owned the restaurant wandered over to the table.  “It’s ok,” she said.  “He is a good man.  And I know his mother.”

I laughed.  Well, if you know his mother!  “Ok,” I said.  “Oui.”

And thus ends my first night in Provence, walking alongside a kind French man through the labyrinthine streets of Arles, making small talk as we approached the sparkling Rhône, enjoying a starry, starry night.